15 Dec 18
When you’re feeling down or stuck in a rut, it can be tempting to think about quitting your job, packing your bags, and going to someplace to snorkel with sea turtles on a journey of self-discovery. But not all of us have the financial means—or the desire—to blow up our lives full-stop. (Plus, even if you reach turtle nirvana, chances are you will eventually have to head home to replenish your funds.) Thankfully, in the age of wifi and international data plans, there’s a middle path: Taking your work on the road with you.
This option isn’t available to everyone. But if you work for a company that allows remote work or if you’re self-employed, globe-trotting with your laptop in tow can be an excellent way to see the world—and far-flung friends and family—without breaking the bank.
We’re two journalists who’ve had the chance to try this out ourselves. Here’s what we’ve learned about the advantages of working remotely, the practicalities to consider, and the pitfalls you’ll want to avoid.
Why you should do it
Sarah: This fall, I moved from New York to London for several months. The opportunity came at the perfect time: Having lived in the same city for five years and worked at the same company for three, I was eager for a bit of a shakeup.
Working in an office across the Atlantic gave me the perfect balance between stability (a stable job, a steady daytime routine, a delightful set of coworkers) and excitement—from London’s affordable theater tickets and joyfully dog-friendly pubs to the cheap flights to places like Nice, Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, and Mallorca. I often stayed for long weekends in order to make the most of those side trips, working remotely on weekdays from coffeeshops and Airbnbs—which was a great way to take advantage of my time abroad and build in more travel than I otherwise would have gotten to experience.
A few months away gave me some ideas about things I’d like to change in my daily life back home, most notably that I’ve got to start setting better work hours for myself. But it also made me more appreciative of everything I have back home.
Rosie: As a former nomadic freelancer, I spent months on end living out of a well-packed suitcase and working in places as varied as Cape Town, Ho Chi Minh City, and Paris. When I started at Quartz in late 2017, I decided to try and keep up the challenge of doing my work on the go every now and then by utilizing the privilege of working for a remote-friendly company that happens to cover the world. In 2018, I spent a week each working from Paris, a suburb of Barcelona, and the Estonian capital of Tallinn.
I have no doubt that travel has made my work better—going to new places is a great way to generate story ideas—but perhaps more surprisingly, I have found that working on the road makes me a better traveler, too. I love waking up in a new place and actually having a task: find coffee, find a workspace, as well as a happy hour, an exhibition, or a place to go swimming once the workday is over. It takes the pressure off of finding something to do and replaces it with the nice task of simply slotting myself into the daily flow of whatever place I’m in. Over and over, I find my favorite cities end up being the ones that I’ve worked from.
How to do it
Prioritize finding internet access that’s fast. There are certain things you can compromise on when moving accommodation often; wifi is not one of them. Make sure to tell your host or accommodation option ahead of time that you will require high-speed internet, and check reviews which mention wifi speed. If the connection is making you miserable, consider moving elsewhere. If the promised wifi doesn’t pan out, you can always try for a partial refund. You also might opt to pay for a generous mobile data plan or get a local data sim card; it’s a good redundancy for the inevitable moment the wifi drops ahead of an important call.
Embrace work and play being one and the same. If you wouldn’t normally have a beer on a Monday, or take an hour-long lunch break, or assert strong work-life boundaries—now is the time to break with convention. You did not take the leap of travel just to stick to the same rigid routine you have at home. Examine the locals’ way of doing things and see how you might approach your own life differently. It’s entirely possible that resolving to take a full hour for lunch every day for a week will not just result in better lunches, but a creative breakthrough, too.
Research places to work. While in some cities, like New York or London, you may be able to plop down in just about any cafe and open your laptop, it’s important to be culturally sensitive and aware when it comes to finding places to work in other locales. Almost every city or town will have a blog post devoted to listing the cafes that welcome latptoppers, and many cities have co-working spaces that allow you pay a daily rate (hint: just Google “digital nomad cafe + city name” to find them). If you’re not sure it’s acceptable, it never hurts to ask the cafe manager—and make sure you sample enough of the cafe fare to earn your keep. And don’t forget that if you get stuck, hotel lobbies are always a good bet.
Be clear with your manager or clients. There can be a perception that working from a desirable, vacation-like location means you’re not actually working. It won’t take you long to realize that is far from the truth. But it’s important to be clear with your boss or your clients to manage their expectations. If you’re on a different time zone, explain up front how that might affect meetings or response times. Or if you’ll be in transit during office hours, make it clear ahead of time what you’ll be working on while offline. There is no reason your productivity needs to drop when you’re on the road, but your communication needs to improve.
Be wise about housing. There are several ways to sort your accommodation when traveling for a long stint. Companies like Roam and Outsite offer properties around the world that are designed with working nomads in mind, but it’s worth noting that those options will likely be more expensive than finding lodging on your own. Airbnb offers more security than, say, finding a sublet on a listings site (though that’s an option too, just be hyper-cautious). And of course, don’t overlook the opportunity to sublet your place at home, if that’s possible, or perhaps use the end of a lease as a reason to temporarily put your stuff in storage while you roam the world.
Things to avoid
Feeling lonely. As anyone who’s ever moved to a new place can attest, it’s tough to make new friends as an adult—and it can be even harder when you’re only in a new spot for a short amount of time. A few tips for socializing while working abroad: Tell your social network where you’re heading, and ask if they know anyone you ought to meet up with. Don’t be afraid to go to concerts, readings, and other events solo, and try striking up conversations with people while standing in line or ordering drinks. Bring a book with you to a bar and smile at the people who settle in next to you. And peruse the options on websites like Meetup.com and Airbnb Experiences to find group activities that are up your alley.
Working all the damn time. When you’re working on a different time zone than clients or co-workers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of extending your hours endlessly to accommodate theirs. Instead, use the time difference to your advantage. If it’s inevitable that you’ll be on a hour or two later than normal, use those hours in the morning to catch an exhibition or go for a long run. Or, if you must get up early to catch another time zone, take Friday afternoons off to accommodate for the extra hours.
Bringing too much stuff. The beauty of working while traveling is being flexible; however, that becomes a lot more difficult if you’re carting around too much stuff. Moving Airbnbs on a whim, catching an early train, or braving a low-cost, long-haul flight are all infinitely easier if you can comfortably carry all your belongings. Of course you should bring a work setup that will allow you to get everything done, but it will serve you to embrace the idea that you can generally find whatever you might need in the place you’re going.
Spending your money unwisely. The mere act of spending money can be more expensive abroad, so you’ll need to make a plan for how you’re going to minimize penalties over a long stint abroad. It should include a smart, low-cost approach to withdrawing cash, plenty of foreign transaction fee free cards, and knowledge about when you should, and shouldn’t, pay for something in local currency.